US officials ‘fear bio-terror’ from India
NEW DELHI: US officials fear lax security at Indian laboratories could make the facilities targets for terrorists seeking biological weapons to launch attacks across the globe, according to comments in a leaked US diplomatic cable made public yesterday.
The cable was part of a trove of documents sent from the US Embassy in New Delhi that was obtained by the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks and published yesterday by the British newspaper The Guardian.
The cables dealt with accusations of Indian torture in Kashmir and the concerns of Rahul Gandhi – seen as India’s prime-minister-in-waiting – that Hindu extremists pose a greater danger to India than Islamist militants.
One of the cables from June 2006 raised concerns that terrorist groups could take advantage of weak security at Indian laboratories to steal “bacteria, parasites, viruses or toxins”.
“Getting into a facility to obtain lethal bio-agents is not very difficult here,” one expert, whose name was redacted from the cable, told US diplomats.
A second expert said that academic research facilities maintain only very loose security procedures. “The harsh reality is that with a pack of cigarettes you can bribe a guard to get inside.”
One source told the diplomats that India’s thousands of biological scientists also might be recruited, either out of ideological sympathies or for money.
An Indian government official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to publicly address the issue, dismissed the concerns as “farfetched and fanciful”.
However, Suman Sahai, a biotechnology expert, said that four years after the cable was written, security remained very poor at biotech firms.
While India has not been the target of a biological attack, it has suffered devastating conventional terror strikes, including a 2001 attack on its parliament and the 2008 attack by 10 Pakistan-based militants on the city of Mumbai for 60 hours.
Indian officials made it clear in the cable that they were focusing more on a possible nuclear or chemical attack – presumably from longtime rival Pakistan – than a biological one.
While many other countries are also poorly prepared for bio-terror, the cable said, “few live in the kind of dangerous neighbourhood that India does, where terrorism, lax security, petty corruption, high population density, weak public health… and a booming and sophisticated biotech
An expert said: ‘The reality is that with a pack of cigarettes you can bribe a guard to get inside a research facility’
Another cable detailed a confidential 2005 briefing by the International Committee of the Red Cross that accused India of the widespread use of torture in Kashmir.
The Red Cross said it had interviewed 1 491 detainees between 2002 and 2004 and found that many had been beaten, hung from the ceiling, put in stress positions, sexually abused or tortured with electricity, water or a round metal object called “the roller” used to crush a person’s thighs, the cable said.
The Red Cross had raised the issues with India for a decade and the continuation of the practice led the agency to believe the government condoned the torture, it said.
In response to the accusation, Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said yesterday: “India is an open and democratic nation which adheres to the rule of law. If and when an aberration occurs, it is promptly and firmly dealt with under existing legal mechanisms in an effective and transparent manner.” – Sapa-AP